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Saturday, March 21, 2009


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This is my father's favorite method of arguing with me. "Let's see what Webster has to say!" It's very irritating. On the other hand, sometimes a dictionary can be useful in serious friendly discussions, especially when examining the nuances or connotations of words. For instance, if one suspects that two words are etymologically related, and this might be a clue to why they are used in a certain way, which might lead to insight about the topic of discussion, a good dictionary can be indispensable. The history of individual words can also be very valuable for hunting out sedimented or obsolete meanings which one might wish to retrieve. I use the OED rather than Webster, however.


Yes, the OED sets the standard. It is the ultimate trump in any dispute about actual usage. Etymology is interesting, and where possible I prefer terminology that preserves original meanings. But there is no such thing as the 'true meaning' of a word and so I shall write YET ANOTHER post exposing the 'etymological fallacy' of thinking that one can show what a word 'really means' by tracing its etymology. Certain benighted atheists, for example, want to define 'atheist' in terms of 'absence of theistic belief' by invoking etymology.

"it is undeniably a good starting point"

That's kind of the way I use it. To me the dictionary use is justifiable use. I can defend my use of unspecified terms by referring to the dictionary definition. But leveraged as an argument, it's no more than an appeal to authority.

As well, I need to motivate terms that are too far from common knowledge. For example, Atheists may talk about an absence of belief in God when they say "atheist", but most people are talking about belief in no God. That defines a set of people just as much as the preferred line the more general atheist draw.

Atheists are always touting that you can "believe what you want," but I always point out that apparently, not about what is the true definition of "atheism", as long as you demand that everybody who uses it in another sense is wrong. It also requires a certain theory of correctness, I would believe as well.

Also, I find etymology to be a tool to illustrate how words have been associated over time. Certain ideas were like others.

"But there is no such thing as the 'true meaning' of a word and so I shall write YET ANOTHER post exposing the 'etymological fallacy' of thinking that one can show what a word 'really means' by tracing its etymology."

"I am of course assuming that there are certain distinctions 'out there in the world' and that responsible language-users must use words in such a way as to do justice to them. For example, there is a difference between inference and implication even if everyone comes to use 'infer' and 'imply' interchangeably."

Bill, these two statements seem, prima facie, to be at odds with each other. However, they don't have to be, of course, as long as you're referring to words and semantic drift in the former quote, and to the concepts that words 'label' in the latter (or something along these lines). It would seem to me to be the case that while the former quote is concerned with the obvious notion that word meaning changes over time ('silly' is one of my favorite examples), while the latter quote is concerned with concepts. Is this right?

Somewhere Jacques Barzun speaks to the disciple we must cultivate if we wish to become writers. I quote from memory (that is to say, inaccurately): “If you wish to become a writer, you must cultivate an acute self-consciousness in your use of words. Not sometimes, not usually or often, but always. It is not enough to pay to words only when you face the task of writing. You must attend to words when you read, when you speak, when others speak. You must become a critical editor of everything you hear and read and of everything you say and write. Words must become ever-present in your waking life, an obtrusive and incessant concern. In short, you must become word-obsessed.”
My question is whether this strikes you as good advice for philosophers as well. I’d really be interested in what you all think. You may agree or you may disagree. What worries me personally and triggers all of my insincerities is that if I do not take the time to study how people actually use the concepts I find philosophically interesting, I open myself to the charge of not knowing what the hell I’m talking about. I would not have the temerity, for example, to write a book on counterfactuals when I have not bothered to study very carefully how people actually use counterfactuals in natural languages. Philosophers do write such books, and to no one’s surprise linguists deride them. The recommendation is that we restrain our philosophical impulse to normative and stipulative re-definition until we at least know what the facts are.
Dictionaries like Webster’s III and the OED are one place to study the meaning of words, but they are imperfect authorities and necessarily more records of how words were used a generation or two ago. The meaning of many words is profoundly Heraclitean: you cannot use them today with the meaning they had yesterday.
I profess at least an admiration of Barzun’s disciple of writing, but many days I fail to live up to it. Am I a hypocrite? There is just too much “communicating” we need to do these days in too little time. The “communication revolution” has debased all our standards. Even my favorite Trappist monastery now has a website and replies promptly to inquiries!


Barzun's advice is good except for the exaggeration, as witness, "Words must become ever-present in your waking life, an obtrusive and incessant concern. In short, you must become word-obsessed.” Surely Barzun is not recommending an obsession! So let's say he is misusing the word 'obsession.' But then his expression of his main point is in some tension with his main point.

But let me be charitable. Barzun is recommending that we attend very carefully to language if we would be good writers. You are asking whether close attention to (ordinary) language is also important for philosophers. It certainly is. One reason is that language can mislead us. Some conceptual 'muddles' as a Brit might say have a linguistic origin. But it is also the case that ordinary language is a rich source of distinctions that the philosopher will want to make explicit.

You speak of "tak[ing] the time to study how people actually use the concepts I find philosophically interesting. . . ." Why did you write 'concepts' rather than 'words'? That substitution gives me pause. There is the word 'hypocrisy,' but it is not self-evident that there is one concept which it expresses on every occasion when 'hypocrisy' and cognates are used by a competent English speaker. Perhaps we need to distinguish among several concepts that bear among themselves a family resemblance.

I quickly and easily concede to you that close attention to ordinary language is important for the philosopher. But that agreement papers over a very deep disagreement. For me, there can be no philosophical understanding if one remains too close to the details of ordinary usage. To put it aphoristically, there can be ordinary language *phenomenology* but no ordinary language *philosophy.* Philosophy is theory and theory requires some regimentation of ordinary language. To put it even more sharply and tendentiously, 'ordinary language philosophy' is an oxymoron.

I get the impression you haven't read any recent work by philosophers such as Jonathan Bennett on counterfactuals. Otherwise, how could you say that they don't attend to how people actually use counterfactuals?


When I said that there is no such thing as the true meaning of a word I was getting at the point that the meaning of a word depends on how it is actually used and how it fits together with other words. A word does not have a meaning the way a rock has the property of being hard. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

When I said that there are distinctions in the world I was saying that the structure of the world does not depend on language-users. That too needs explaining but I think you get my point. Seems to me that my two points are logically consistent.

Example. Envy is not the same as jealousy. What I just wrote is an English sentence. But the truth the sentence expresses, and the properties involved, are logically antecedent to the English language. And yet what 'envy' actually means in English could change. Example 2. 'Change' could come to mean the same as 'improvement.' But that would not alter the extralinguistic fact that change is not identical to improvement.

Bill, what do you think about words that refer to, say, customs or institutions, i.e. to aspects of the world that tend to change with our word usage (as opposed to 'logically antecedent properties' such as 'envy'). Take marriage as an example. Suppose that the word marriage comes to comprise the union of any number of consenting adults. Would there then be historically antecedent, as opposed to logically antecedent, truths that such sentences express? Or will there then be both a historical and logical dimension to the analysis of these terms? In short, are there different types of extralinguistic facts -- (1) those that are logically prior to any sentences that express them, and (2) those that emerge as our language changes, and that are thus in a sense coterminous with our usage (as opposed to being logically antecedent to it)? It would seem to be the case that while the dictionary fallacy would apply to appeals to the dictionary when asking questions about the nature of (1), it wouldn't seem to do so (at least not to the same extent) when discussing (2).


I more or less agree with your main contention that one cannot conclude what a thing is by appeal to a common use of a word, but I want to raise a point of interest that your post does not get into. Take your example of "change" and "improvement". Your point that it would be fallacious to try and discover what "change" is by appeal to a common misuse of the word relies on there being a conflict between two uses of "change". That is, when we ask what "change" is, we have a certain notion in mind and we are trying to discover what it is. To appeal to a misuse (that is, a use of the word which expresses a different notion/carries a different meaning) would indeed be a fallacy, but only because we are trying to discover what the notion x ("change") is by appeal to notion y ("improvement"), and x and y are not identical. If the words did not carry different meanings in the sense of expressing different ideas or representing different notions, then this conflict would not arise. It is a fallacy because it tries to identify x with y, when x and y are not identical.

However, it seems to me that this is a fallacy philosophers often commit in the opposite direction. Take, for example, the word "color". I think it fair to say that if color is anything, then it is what we are claiming a thing to have when we say that it is "colored". That is, we have some notion or idea in mind and we are attributing it to some object. Let what we MEAN by color be represented by "x" rather than the word "color". Often, philosophers will go about trying to tell us what "x" is, by turning it into some materialist conception or illusion which is not "x". They turn "x" into some thing which no one has ever meant to claim an object to have or something which does not really exist (such as that it is an illusion). In other words, in telling us what color is, they give us some idea or notion "y" (which is not identical to "x") or deny that "x" really exists, and then tell us that this is the answer to "What is 'x'?"

But it seems equally fallacious to me to assert that "x" is _____, when the philosopher's use of the word is equally a misuse (that is, a use of the word which, like before, expresses a different notion or carries a different meaning). It is no less committing the fallacy of trying to settle what "x" (that is, what was meant by "color") is by appeal to "y" when the philosopher does it by appeal to a newly invented and largely contrived definition than when the political junky does it by appeal to a popular spin on connotation. Sometimes, I have even wondered if some philosophers' uses of words have not themselves been spins on connotation.

When the popular/common conception of a thing is what is being asserted, then it seems to me that the only way to decide what the thing is, is by figuring out what is being asserted. I understand that our assertions may be literally false since we may be delusional, ignorant or simply decieved. We may, for example, be saying things are colored when they actually are not. The fact that we have encountered and which we have thought of as "x" may actually be "y", but is it not an abuse to language to say that x IS y, rather than come right out and say that we are misguided and there is no x, only y?


I am puzzled by your use of quotation marks. 'Change' is a word; change is not a word. 'Boston' is disyllabic; Boston is not. Boston is a city; 'Boston' is not. In the last sentence, 'Boston' is being used in its first occurrence, but being mentioned in its second. Are we clear about that?


I apologize. Public education. Actually, I’m afraid I panicked. I know that you prefer your posters to have graduate degrees in philosophy, but if you will humor an uneducated Joe for a moment, I promise to keep to a minimum. Indeed, I may not participate outside this thread at all.

To restate what I was saying, hopefully more clearly, sometimes the principle behind referring to a dictionary seems quite sound, even if it is not a very good means of coming to truth. It seems to me that questions about what a thing is (and abstracts like truth, meaning or change in particular), are often meant as questions about what some distinct notion or idea is. We understand the question in a way different from how we would were the subject an unknown word. A child just learning the word “change” would wonder what change is in a very different way than an adult who used the word with understanding. When we ask what change is, the word “change” means something to us. We have some notion or idea in mind, and we are inquiring about its nature.

It seems to me that there is some potential gap here which is well known to philosophers. Things as they are, are not necessarily how they seem or as we think of them. Nonetheless, the question as it is understood is a question about the nature of some notion or idea, and I would say that if change is anything, then it must be that. It must be what we mean by that word. Thus, I think the principle of turning to a dictionary to discover what a thing is, is somewhat sound.

The issue, it seems to me, is in the question. When we are trying to discover what a thing is, we are trying to discover what its nature is. The ambiguity mentioned above plays in here. Instead of asking what change is, one could more accurately capture this idea by asking what the thing is that we think of as change. In cases like this, the problem is more apparent with examples like color, truth, meaning, or what have you. For example, when we ask what color is, it is easy to describe some physical fact or process and call this “color”. However, like Moore, I do not think this an appropriate use of language.

It seems to me a lot like saying that x is y, where x and y are very different and sometimes incompatible ideas. It would seem much more appropriate to me, to say that there is no x, but the fact of reality that we think of as x is really y. Some philosophers seem to recognize this difference and speak accordingly. Dennett, for example, will say that consciousness is an illusion. Hofstadter, likewise, will call the “I” a myth or illusion. This seems to show some consciousness of the difference between the conception of a thing and one’s theory of what the fact or reality is. There are other examples, of course, but often the difference does not seem to be noticed.

It may seem petty to spend much time on this, but I think there is good reason. Words carry connotations and I worry sometimes that philosophers smuggle these connotations in through the back door by using the word, even though their theory denies the very aspects of the thing being smuggled in. The other thing that makes me nervous, is what C.S. Lewis called verbicide. In liberal biblical scholarship I am often shocked at the tendency of scholars (and through them, the populace) to read modern uses of words into old texts, and to destroy the meaning of words for political or ideological purposes.

Finally (and I apologize for the length), I thought this was relevant toward your post for two reasons. First, because I think the principle or reason people turn to dictionaries is a correct intuition. They are seeking to clarify in their minds the notion or idea in question. By defining it, they ARE in some sense answering the question. The second reason is that I think the flaw in thinking in the examples you used is one of appealing to a source that provides popular uses which are often misconceptions or identities of different notions. But what is relevant here is not that the definitions are popular, but rather the identity of different ideas. Philosophers often answer such questions by redefining the relevant term in a similar way. It seems quite plausible, for example, that a philosopher should set himself to proving that change is always improvement, and conclude from this that change is improvement. But, even if he were successful, it seems there would be a conceptual difference akin to that illustrated in Moore’s open-question argument. Likewise, however, one might find, if hedonism had any impact on popular language, that a certain dictionary defined “good” as “pleasure”, and I would argue, like you, that this has little value toward discovering what good really is. The main linguistic difference between the dictionary fallacy and the philosopher in question, it seems to me, is that the philosopher argues for her identity of terms on grounds of a common referent or the external fact, whereas the aforementioned political junky finds hers in the dictionary. Conceptually, however, there is still a distinction.

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